USC Coach Clay Helton draped an arm around quarterback Sam Darnold after USC’s 41-20 victory over Arizona State on Saturday.
“At some point in time,” Helton said, smiling, “Sam’s going to have a tough day.”
That time has not yet arrived.
Darnold dazzled against the Sun Devils, completing 23 of 33 passes for 352 yards and three touchdowns. He ran for a touchdown. It was a performance that dwarfed his introduction as USC’s starter, the week prior, which had already compared favorably to the debuts of recent USC quarterbacks Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and Matt Barkley.
Darnold’s first two weeks as the starting quarterback have provided early vindication for Helton’s midseason switch, when he replaced Max Browne with Darnold, despite Browne’s capable play through three games.
“He’s really ahead of the game,” Helton said Sunday. “He’s really advanced. And you can tell, in all aspects. Whether he’s dealing with the media postgame. Whether it’s his play in the game. There’s a maturity about it that’s uncanny for this age.”
USC running back Justin Davis breaks free during a run against Arizona State on Oct. 1.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
USC defensive back Marvell Tell III (7) sacks Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins (5) during the first half of a game at the Coliseum on Oct. 1.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
USC defensive back Chris Hawkins (4) sacks Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins (5) during the first half of a game at the Coliseum on Oct. 1.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
USC defense reacts after defensive back Chris Hawkins’ sack of Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins during a game on Oct. 1.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
USC linebacker Uchenna Nwosu (42) reacts after sacking Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins (5) during the first half of a game at the Coliseum on Oct. 1.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
USC defensive backs Jonathan Lockett (23) and Ykili Ross (30) celebrate a defensive stop against Arizona State during a game at the Coliseum on Oct. 1.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Darnold’s emergence has transformed USC’s offense from stagnant to dynamic. Its dismantling of Arizona State was its most efficient offensive output of the season: 7.6 yards per play (523 total).
Darnold did not contribute much with his legs Saturday, but he avoided sacks against an effective pass-rushing team. He spread the ball around — nine receivers caught a pass. And he reignited USC’s languishing weapon, receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who caught three touchdown passes and surpassed 100 yards for the first time this season.
“I just kind of threw it out there and watched him do his thing,” Darnold said.
Darnold, Helton said, has not played like a redshirt freshman. His arm strength and mobility were always evident. But, Helton said, his decision making has advanced rapidly.
Helton appreciated the plays he did not force. On one screen pass, Arizona State’s defense snuffed the play from the start. Darnold recognized the breakdown immediately and threw the ball away.
When USC tried a flea flicker, Justin Davis’ pitch back to Darnold bounced. Darnold did not panic. He picked up the ball, stepped into the pass rush and delivered a 40-yard strike to Deontay Burnett.
Darnold has benefitted from avoiding prolonged exposure to more furious defenses in early games against Alabama and Stanford. Arizona State’s pass defense ranks last in the nation. Still, Helton gushed about Darnold’s play. His decisions, Helton said, were “exemplary.” His maturity, he said, was “rare.”
Still, Helton said, Darnold found him after the game and offered half an apology.
“Coach that wasn’t my best game, I can do better” Helton said Darnold told him.
Each time an Arizona State quarterback looked up, it seemed, Rasheem Green was in his face.
The sophomore defensive lineman had been quiet for much of the season. On Saturday, his statistics were modest: one solo tackle. But it was a sack, which knocked starting quarterback Manny Wilkins from the game. He also assisted on another tackle.
And his presence was a constant annoyance in Arizona State’s passing game. On several plays, he harassed Wilkins, flushing him out of the pocket and disrupting his pass attempts.
Helton called the performance “by far his best game since he’s been here.”
And, he predicted, it could continue. Most Pac-12 Conference teams offer a favorable matchup for Green.
“As we get more into these spread football teams, I think he’s going to show up even more,” Helton said. “What he brings to the table is he is a tremendous pass rusher.”
Right tackle Zach Banner’s sprained ankle was close to 90% by Saturday’s game, Helton said, but he wanted to give Banner an additional week of rest. … Cornerback Jack Jones (sprained ankle), who played sparingly against Arizona State, should be without restrictions next week, Helton said. … Linebacker Jabari Ruffin is in USC’s concussion protocol. … Cornerback Jonathan Lockett suffered a sprained shoulder. ... Running back Aca’Cedric Ware suffered a hand injury and underwent X-rays, which revealed no fractures.